Parenthood: great ride, or serious drag? Researchers keep looking for answers


    The stroller brigade was rolling down the street, toward a busy day care center near Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Parkway. It was drop-off time, a cold winter morning, and bundled up toddlers sat happily in their rides as their parents pushed over icy sidewalks. The parents on the other hand all looked really stressed out and rushed.

    Is parenthood a great ride, or a serious drag?

    A lot of research studies have attempted to determine that and right now, a new book called “All Joy and No Fun” by Jennifer Senior on this issue is getting a lot of buzz. In fact, some reviewers have compared it to Betty Friedan’s famed “Feminine Mystique.”

    Some time ago, when Senior had recently published an article of the same title, and I had just read some new research studies on this issue, I decided to explore parenthood and happiness myself, in a very unscientific fashion, starting at my own house.

    My findings were mixed. It appeared that parents, myself included, had lots of daily ups and downs. Moments of joy and elation making way for complete and utter frustration. And it also seemed that my friends who had decided not to have children were happy with their decision.

    This is similar to the findings of a recent major study on the impact of parenthood on life satisfaction; published by Angus Deaton, a professor of international affairs and economics at Princeton University.

    “I have been interested in life satisfaction for quite a while,” said Deaton, and the question of how kids impact life satisfaction is a big one. “It’s been a long-standing issue without much resolution in this literature for a long time.”

    Deaton’s research focused on Americans aged 34 to 46, and he utilized data from the Gallup organization. He said for his research, he separated out two different concepts of happiness. One is overall life satisfaction.

    “How is your life going as a whole, we ask people to imagine a ladder, or at least the Gallup organization asks people to imagine a ladder, where 0 is the worst possible life for you, and 10 is the best possible life for you,” he explained. Much later in the survey, people are asked whether they have children or not. “We also ask them if they were happy yesterday, did you feel a lot of happiness, a lot of anger, stress, did you smile a lot?”

    Deaton says that in terms of moment-to-moment happiness, parents experience a lot more ups and downs, more joy, more stress, more frustration – more everything.

    When it comes to life satisfaction, Deaton says at first glance, parents seem to report higher levels. But he cautions that it’s important to understand that parents are very different from non-parents in many ways. “They are more educated, make more money, they are more likely to be religious, to be married,” he explained. “Their incomes are about 28% higher, and they are three percentage points more likely to be college educated,” he added.

    All of these factors impact overall life satisfaction, and have to be considered in evaluations, and when he controlled for those factors, Deaton said the life satisfaction of parents and non-parents was about the same. “It’s pretty much a wash, there is very little difference.”

    Which begs the question – what do we make of these results?

    Deaton answered without hesitation. “I think you make a loss less of it than what people are likely to.” He explained that you can’t say that more or less life satisfaction is the result of having children, and he cautioned that the findings were averages. “Some people have their lives made much better by kids, and some much worse, and you don’t know which group you are going to be in.”

    He said happiness research in general is a bit tricky. “It’s interesting. It’s interesting that people who live in Hawaii are happier than those who live in New Jersey, but there is no policy prescription that could come from that,” he said. “I mean, should we put a big poster on the New Jersey Turnpike saying ‘go to Hawaii and be happy’ I don’t really think so.”

    Deaton said he was once part of the nightly Gallup survey that asks 1,000 Americans about their life satisfaction – he said he rated his life at an eight.

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